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The End of the Universality of Science?

By Dick Bourgeois-Doyle


For a physicist laying on a wet stone floor, battered, hungry, needing medical care, and unsure of what the next day and the day after will bring, abstract concepts and majestic statements of principle would be distant concerns. 

But words have meaning, have the power to mobilize forces beyond prison walls, and can, sometimes, touch the circumstance of individuals.

Throughout its history, the International Council for Science (ICSU) has summoned noble-sounding words in its efforts to coalesce international science and, more recently, to advocate for scientists in places where they can be persecuted for their profession and pursuit of truths.

This summer (2018) ICSU will cease to be when it merges with the International Social Science Council (ISSC) to create a new entity, to be named the International Science Council (ISC), at the inaugural General Assembly in Paris.  Most of ICSU’s core principles will manifest reaffirmed within the ISC charter. Most. Not all.

One is set to drop to the wayside.

I think this is unfortunate, but I would seem to be in a minority.

When ICSU and ISSC members met in Taipei in October 2017, they not only voted convincingly to merge, they also took foundational policy decisions and, in the process, rejectedThe Universality of Science as a named concept.

The words “Universality of Science” had branded ICSU’s Statute 5, the touchstone for efforts to promote wide participation in science as a basic right.  The current wording of the Statute, last updated at the ICSU 2011 General Assembly in Rome, also recognizes that such rights carry parallel obligations.  

The concept of “Universality” has thus been invoked to promote both freedom and responsibility in science. In fact, though the Universality Principle was said to frame all ICSU activities, the ICSU Committee on Freedom and Responsibility in the conduct of Science (CFRS) held duties as the Principle’s primary champion. 

This issue is of interest to me as the Canadian member of the CFRS for the past three years.

We on the Committee felt our work was important.  We issued advisory-style policy statements on research integrity issues, organized small scientific events, and advocated for those individual scientists whose rights had been deemed to be infringed.

In reviewing the Committee’s history, I noted that just a few decades ago, infringements often took the form of delays in visa approvals and other barriers to science conference participation.  More recently, “infringement” has seemed a hollow term as the CFRS examined cases of imprisonment, torture, and brutal death.

Statute 5 with its calls for “integrity, respect, fairness, trustworthiness, and transparency” and its opposition to “discrimination based on such factors as ethnic origin, religion, citizenship, language, political or other opinion, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, disability, or age” strikes most readers as compelling and sound, and I believe that this description of the principle will remain largely intact.

Why then did its name draw detractors and calls for its deletion from the proposed ISC statutes?

Though the issue drew little open debate, I heard two reasons for the opposition percolating around the coffee breaks and side meetings at that 2017 gathering in Taipei.

One flowed from the belief that the term “Universality of Science” begged misinterpretation and that “Freedom and Responsibility” made for a more manageable emphasis in communications.  Representatives of the UK’s national member in ICSU, the Royal Society, spoke to this point.

More often, attendees at the Taipei assembly argued offline that the term “Universality of Science” had its roots in the so-called “formal” and natural sciences and definitions of science based on physical observations and studies of the material world.  The term made some uncomfortable as the concept of an ideal science and something that did not allow for the relativism legitimate in the study of people and societies.  For others, the term carried the mantle of imperialism: a definition of science forced on the world by the power of the technologies that flowed from a particular approach.  The notion was also seen as a threat to the legitimacy of indigenous knowledge.

ICSU-ISSC delegates

ICSU-ISSC delegates

Later, I read that these concerns have been explored in the literature for many years. 

French science historian and philosopher Michel Paty, in a 2007 paper, said that debates on the “question of the universality of science” invited “the most varied and opposed positions” linked to either the assumption of an “ideal science” or to an interest in the “social production of science.”

However, I and some other members of ICSU’s CFRS understood the notion as being fundamental to - but distinct from - the freedom and responsibility agendas, from the tragic specific cases of individual scientists, and from the issues of access and equality in science.

For me, the tactics aimed at freedom and responsibility in science were “the how” and “the what” of the work: the Principle of Universality provided “the why.”

In this, the question the principle answered was why science, as opposed to other human interests and endeavours, might warrant special status as an entreprise with qualities that should be equally shared by all people, all life, and all things.

With the presumption that science aspires to the development and organization of a unique kind of knowledge, it seemed to be worthy of universal acceptance as an endeavour that inched toward absolute truths and enduring explanations of our world and universe.  Although I know it is as fallible as human activities can be, science seemed to me to merit a universality rank as the brand on a systematic, testable knowledge governed by basic, agreed upon laws and applicable in plausible situations.

The words “Principle of the Universality of Science” had a beguiling kind of gravitas that gave legitimacy to our committee’s assertion that science warranted freedoms and carried responsibilities.  As well, it helped give ICSU credibility in the drive to promote science as a public good, to combat misinformation in the era of fake news, and to intervene in individual cases.

When authorities detain and interrogate a scientist under vague charges and no avenue to justice, issues of basic human rights take centre stage, and an individual’s ability to pursue scientific research can seem like a lesser priority.  But the infringement of scientific freedom adds another dimension to a specific case and, more powerfully, illustrates how the plight of one individual relates to broader issues and global concerns.

Our committee’s interventions on behalf of those on prison floors when grounded by the Universality Principle thus inferred a violation of accepted international standards, had the texture of authority, and appealed to economic, social and political self-interests.  

Whether these presumed benefits outweigh the argued downsides of the term “Universality” or not is open to everyone’s judgement, few would suggest that the science community should avoid terminology solely because it demands explanation; furthermore, the issues around relativism could be reconciled by noting that the concept of universality embraces the constant challenge and evolutionary nature of knowledge that comes from recognition of  fallibility and changing circumstance.

Professor Paty said that notions such as those that of a “valid knowledge” have to be built on the belief that “communication must be possible between these various forms of knowledge” and that the idea of progress in science is one “stemming from the accumulation or summing up of knowledges, is inherent to our conception of science, and it is tied with the critical function of reason, constitutive of science.”

The format at the ICSU-ISSC 2017 meeting in Taipei did not allow for full-bodied debate of such points.

Regardless, the challenge to the term “Universality of Science” arose from the floor with a degree of forcefulness that the chair of the session decided to hold an unscheduled straw vote on the spot.  Of the few who spoke to the issue beforehand, only one voiced any argument in favour of retaining the term; I applauded then, but otherwise sat on my hands.

The ensuing show of cards was convincing in the negative.  ICSU and ISSC might court peril if they ignored it, and delegates leaving Taipai in the fall of 2017 knew that although not official, the decision had pretty much been taken and the term was unlikely to survive the next stage of the ICSU-ISSC merger process.

This decision blew a light air of awkwardness across an event I helped stage just a few weeks later at the World Science Forum on the shores of the Dead Sea in Jordan.

Dead Sea: World Science Forum Location

Dead Sea: World Science Forum Location

We on the ICSU-CFRS hosted the Opening Day Thematic Session dubbed, now ironically, “the Future of the Universality of Science.”  The Committee had proposed the theme months earlier presuming this label would persist into the merged ICSU-ISSC organization.  The intent was to discuss in an open forum how the Principle should be promoted and applied in the future.  The Committee wondered, for example, whether there might be better ways to support those individuals and scientific communities being persecuted for their science than humble letters to authorities and support of rights-based campaigns.

I moderated the session with this aspiration though the CFRS Chair, Professor Leiv Syndes, began it by sharing those decisions in Taipei and the implications for the session’s title.

As it turned out, this was not much of a concern.  Most of the subsequent discussion focused on that freedom and responsibility balance.  Those attending the session heard of challenging science circumstance from Palestinian university professor Yousef Najaireh, and then from Roberta D’Alessandro, a professor at Utrecht University, talked of the irony of work at strong institution in a privileged Western country where administrative burdens, report writing, accountability for teaching techniques, and ad hoc bureaucratic demands combine to erase time and thus “the freedom” to pursue science.  

She suggested, only partly in jest, that one could easily feel oppressed in Utrecht.

Though this session did not formally endorse the Universality Principle, its profile in  the World Science Forum program carried this brand into the communications coming from the event. This was expressed in the final communique as a commitment “to the fulfilment of the universal right to science” and to “embrace the Principle of the Universality of Science adopted by ICSU member organisations.”

So, another organization embraced a concept just as its mother was letting go.

The World Science Forum also, perhaps, offered a vehicle for conciliation in the “universal right to science” phrase, inferring a universality quality in claiming science as a human right.  This, to my mind, would in turn argue for the need for freedoms and responsibilities.

So, I comfort myself thinking that maybe a debate over wording is a natural feature of the maturity of a concept like this. Perhaps then, the “Universality” notion has not been locked away forever, thrown to the stone wet floor of imprisoned thinking. 

It has merely been released, battered but alive, into other words, other hands, and other platforms – things like science blogs.

Professor Paty’s paper

World Science Forum Agenda Item



World Science Forum Declaration

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